“Ain’t None of Them Play Like Him Yet” The Great Harry James on Trumpet

I have anticipated writing this post for a long time, and this is the time. I choose my blog topics using the same rationale that motivates the author, David McCullough. “I write the things I would like to read,” to paraphrase Mr. McCullough. The most pleasurable and rewarding post themes inevitably reflect both the writer’s knowledge of and an enthusiasm for the subject at hand. While my knowledge concerning the great trumpet player and jazz/swing pioneer Harry James may be less than complete, my appreciation of his musical talent and his ascent to the top of our popular music culture knows no bounds.

My great interest in and enthusiasm for the Harry James story stems from the fact that I have long been an amateur trumpet player who loves the instrument and who finally recognized, later in life, the unsurpassed talent of Harry James. I am always fascinated by greatness and its root-sources, no matter what the venue: science, music, whatever. And the life of Harry James has all the lure of a rags-to-riches story, including life-lessons on handling overwhelming fame and fortune.

The Greatest Trumpet Player of All Time?

The life of Louis Armstrong is another trumpet player’s rag-to-riches story, even more so. I attach a link to my earlier post on him at the end of this post. Louis appeared on the scene some ten years prior to Harry James. Armstrong, more than anyone else, pioneered the music and the style of playing that led to the popular groundswell called swing/jazz that swept depression era America in the early nineteen-thirties. Along with his uncanny innovation, Louis was a decidedly better player than the rest of the competition in his time, and that competition was heavily centered on black musicians who were hearing Armstrong’s musical message early-on. One white cornet player did come along closely riding Armstrong’s innovative coattails. His name: Bix Beiderbecke. He was the first white player whose style not only echoed the avante-garde movement of the best black players but added a unique flavor that was all his own. Armstrong watched with amusement as his peers attempted to copy Beiderbecke’s appealing style…and could not! It led to a famous comment by Armstrong: “Ain’t none of them play like him yet!”

The same is true of Harry James, even after all the years. Unlike Bix Beiderbecke whose short career ended at age 29 when he died alone in a Bronx apartment from rampant alcoholism, James set musical standards for swing and jazz playing for over forty years. And no one combined the technical proficiency and musicality that James possessed. He was not only the best soloist, he also formed and led bands and smaller ensembles for most all his active career – no small feat.

As for Harry James, I maintain that: “Ain’t none of them play like him yet!”

Louis Armstrong and Harry James knew each other well and held great respect for each other as musicians. I believe Louis would agree about Harry’s overall genius.

Fame and Life in the Fast Lane

As much as I am a fan of his trumpet talent and the musical legacy he forged as a pioneering musician in the era of swing and jazz, that regard is not based on any presumption that Mr. James led a thoroughly admirable life. Who does? On the contrary, Harry James seemed bent on squandering his remarkable talent via his penchant for alcohol and women. Even so, his love of vodka and the lure of willing women could not derail his dedication to music nor his remarkable talent for playing the trumpet. Doc Severenson, the well-known trumpet player and band leader for the late Johnny Carson, once remarked about his pal Harry that James was the only trumpet player he ever knew (and he knew a lot of them) whose playing on the bandstand actually got better as his alcohol intake increased over the course of an evening. Harry’s talent on the horn was so great that he neither feared the possible effects of alcohol on his playing nor needed any boost from it while on the bandstand.

As for beautiful women, “beautiful” seems an inadequate description of the many women Harry James bedded as bandleader of the nation’s premier swing/jazz band. A beautiful face and figure were not requirements for Harry, although they certainly helped. Some of his trysts were so plain of face, even homely, that his band joked that a paper bag would be an appropriate sex-aid for their leader. Harry basically loved the attention of women, and he was not always too particular.
At the peak of his popularity, James had his pick of the lovelies who made themselves clearly available in front of the bandstand.

While playing with the Art Hicks band early in his career, Harry fell in love with the band’s fine young vocalist, Louise Tobin. They were married in May of 1935 and experienced a few lean years, initially, as Harry’s career started to gain traction. The marriage ended in 1943.

In 1943, as Harry and his “Harry James Music Makers” were enjoying national attention, he wooed and won Betty Grable, the favorite pin-up girl of GI’s during World War II. Alas, even the union of the country’s most famous swing/jazz musician and Hollywood’s blond bombshell with the gorgeous legs could not consummate, for all time, what initially seemed a fairy-tale romance. Harry never lost his roving eye while on the road with the band traveling between musical gigs. Nonetheless, in 1943, Harry James found himself and his new wife directly in the celebrity spotlight – perhaps the most famous and envied couple in the country. He, the hot new trumpet player/bandleader with the swinging band and a recent million-seller recording of You Made Me Love You, and she, one of the most beautiful and glamorous young stars in Hollywood.

A Circus Background and an Eighth Grade Education

But let us go back in time to the unlikely beginnings and ultimate journey of this young man named Harry Haag James. Haag? What kind of middle name is Haag? James’ middle name was chosen in honor of Ernest Haag the personable owner/promoter of “The Mighty Haag Show,” essentially a traveling circus which toured the south and southeast in the early nineteen-hundreds. Traveling with the Haag Show meant elephants, performers, and circus wagons traveling in the dead of night to reach the next town by daybreak in order to erect the tents for the next night’s performance. There was rain and there was mud and inconvenience galore – a truly hard-scrabble existence with bright but fleeting spots of show-biz glamour at show-time. Prior to radio and the appearance of traveling bands, the circus provided the only excitement outlet for most of rural America, so business was good…until radio made its inroads in the mid-twenties.

Everette James first joined the Haag show in 1906 as circus bandleader. He had come to this position with a reputation as a pretty fair cornet player (the shorter, mellower kissing cousin to the trumpet) as well as a strong connection with music. He met soon-to-be wife, Maybelle, a featured aerialist in the show during those early years when they traveled in true circus fashion from town to town. In 1916, they welcomed a new little son to the family and named him Harry Haag James.

The Essence of the Harry James Musical Legend

In assessing the greatness of any unusually accomplished and successful individual, the source of that greatness is often posed in the form of the question: “nature or nurture?” I believe that Harry James turned out to be the musical icon that he was because he had both nature and nurture thoroughly covered. As for nature: his father was clearly talented musically, which included possessing great physical “chops” for playing the cornet/trumpet – a significant factor when talking about greatness on the instrument. Harry’s facial features were very much like those of his father and very well-suited to the trumpet mouthpiece. Vibration of the upper lip within the trumpet mouthpiece is the source of all sound produced on the instrument. Skill on the trumpet is, at the same time, that simple and that complicated. Even a decent level of proficiency is not easy to attain. I can vouch from first-hand experience that the level of ability attained and maintained by Harry James is almost incomprehensible to us mere mortals who “play.” Harry James’ overall musicality, considered apart from his technique on the trumpet, is even more difficult to describe and quantify. Musicality like his is a neurological amalgam of complex ear/brain connections, with excellent small muscle-memory thrown-in to enable fine technique on the instrument. Human experience suggests that these characteristics/capabilities can be inherited to one degree or another.

Benny Goodman on the Nature of Prodigies and Talent

The role that heredity, or “nature,” plays in overall musical talent was best summed up by the man who first propelled Harry James into the limelight – the great clarinetist/bandleader, Benny Goodman. I vividly recall watching a CBS television interview of Goodman conducted many years ago by a (then) very young Diane Sawyer who asked, “What does it take to be a truly great (swing/jazz) musician like yourself?” Benny Goodman barely hesitated before answering, “You have got to be born with it.” He might also have added that you must want it! Goodman knew because he lived it himself, and he was never given to any sense of false modesty when asked about it. Despite the arduous training and practicing on his own instrument when growing up, he knew from his decades of experience that “nature” ultimately dominates as the final factor in the equation of musical greatness – given that the necessary hard work and persistence are present.

As for “nurture,” the influence of outside experiences, guidance, and inspiration, young Harry had the run of the circus grounds, ultimately spending most of his time around and on his father’s circus bandstand. The musicians saw the young, precocious boy as a mascot of sorts for the band and readily took him in. By the age of ten, Harry was capably leading his father’s circus band through its entire repertoire.

Everette had begun giving young Harry formal cornet/trumpet lessons by the time the youngster was six years of age. The show-biz glitz of circus life as seen from the bandstand not only gave the youngster a taste of the bright lights of the entertainment world, it gave him a solid footing in the challenges and rewards of being a professional musician. The fleeting glamour spotlight of show-business offered by traveling “mud shows” like The Mighty Haag circus and, later, the Christy Brothers Circus were but a dim premonition of the piercing, bright-lights of the big-time that young Harry would experience in his early twenties as he burst upon the big-band swing craze that was then sweeping America in 1936.

Everette James: Trumpet Lessons Always Before Baseball

To summarize: the best of “nature and nurture” were possessed by Harry James given his father’s inherent musical talents (called genes) and the complete grounding in musicianship he absorbed by constantly being on and around the circus bandstand with Everette. But the primary factor that cemented Harry’s future greatness and set him far apart from the rest was the father’s recognition of his son’s musical potential and his determination not to let that underlying talent go to waste. Thus, began the regimen of disciplined trumpet lessons at the age of six. Everette James proved to be a talented and demanding cornet/trumpet teacher as well as a fine player. Wanting something better for his son than the musical position he himself held in a second-tier, hard-scrabble, mud-show circus band/orchestra, he began teaching his son the rudiments and the fine points of playing the cornet/trumpet. His instruction, the discipline and the thoroughness of his method, went far beyond the expected, comfortable father/son relationship. Everette informed Harry that he would settle for no less than an all-out effort from his son. Young Harry quickly advanced to the bible of all trumpet instruction: the Arban Method. Mastering the exercises in this thick manual is Mount Everest for even the most technically advanced classical trumpet players (think first-chair trumpet in the Chicago Symphony, for example). Very few if any famous jazz trumpeters ever mastered Arban let alone worked extensively from it. Harry did. On many a fine afternoon, when young Harry wanted to join his friends playing baseball, Everette told him he could not quit music practice that afternoon until he could play, perfectly for his father, the assigned pages in the Arban book of trumpet exercises. Once he demonstrated his mastery of the lesson by playing without error, he was free to go play his beloved game of baseball.

Young Harry reportedly often chafed at this paternal discipline, but he respected his father and the strict practice regimen Everette insisted upon. Harry recalled in one of his late-in-life television interviews that his dad would say to him, “Some day you will thank me for being this way.” The discipline surely took a toll on Harry’s psyche in one way or another, but his father’s tough love ultimately made Harry the star player he became – there is no doubt about it. His ability to play the most intricate and difficult classical trumpet pieces like “Carnival of Venice” or the most demanding, high-register improvised jazz riffs without sloughing or fluffing a single note along the way set him apart from most every other trumpet player on the planet. After many years of listening to both Harry James and Benny Goodman recordings, it dawned on me that I virtually never heard even a compromised note or passage in the many intricate and difficult pieces they performed, whether recorded or live. That is a most remarkable reflection on their artistry!

But Harry James offered much more than complete technical mastery as a player: many classically trained players in large symphony orchestras can demonstrate a similar ability. Harry James’ playing also displayed an inventive musicality which, along with his complete mastery of the instrument, allowed him to improvise and create marvelous music passages – on the spot. This ability gave rise to the distinctive style of James’ playing, a style which reflected the influence of Louis Armstrong and which, along with his technical excellence, set him still farther apart from the other fine players of the day. He could sight-read and play sheet music perfectly, note-for-note, as written, but he could also concoct and insert fabulous jazz riffs on the fly and make them shimmer. The ability to play like that is what made Harry James so unique. That degree of musical/jazz sensibility is not something that can be taught at Julliard: you must be born with it, as Benny Goodman well understood. A perfect example of the “James treatment” can be heard in his jazzed-up version of the classic Carnival of Venice which was another of his early big recording hits. That piece showcases both his technical prowess and the musical inventiveness so crucial to swing/jazz.

Harry James was a very accomplished trumpet player by his early teens. He was, in fact, the epitome of a child prodigy on the instrument. While at Dick Dowling Junior High School in Beaumont, Texas, Harry was already playing (on advance-loan) in the Beaumont high school band. In 1931, while still in junior high, he entered a prestigious, Texas-wide music competition sponsored by the Texas Band Teacher’s Association to be held in Temple, Texas. For his selection, he played Neptune’s Court, an extremely difficult cornet piece made famous by the great Herbert L. Clarke, pioneering cornet player and an idol to Everette James.

The Start of Something Big

The surviving eyewitness accounts of the Texas music competition finals shed light on just how good a trumpet player Harry James was. The reports speak of a performance that literally blew the socks off older competitors and judges alike. One competitor in the contest recalled James’ performance many years later: “I remember it like it was yesterday because it was so outstanding. To hear a kid that young play so excellently, so perfectly, was just earthshaking. There were a lot of good trumpet players in high school, but none of them like that – so completely above every other musician in that whole state concert. He astounded the judges so much that they wanted to give him 100 per cent but they said they never had been able to do that, so they gave him a 98. I knew Harry was really headed for big things.”

Following his graduation from Dick Dowling Junior High, young James began playing regularly with professional dance bands near his parents’ home in Beaumont, Texas. Graduation from Dowling Junior High marked the end of Harry James’ formal education. At best, even his attendance during those eight years of schooling was spotty, given the demands of circus travel schedules. After winning the Texas state championship so convincingly, word of this trumpet prodigy spread quickly. His first step up to a name band came in 1932 when he joined “The Phillips Flyers” band of Joe Gill. He then graduated to the group headed by Art Hicks and, soon, he received an offer from the well-regarded band of Ben Pollack.

In December of 1936, word reached Benny Goodman, via his brother, Irving Goodman, about this great young player named Harry James. Benny wasted no time in checking out the claim and, very quickly, young Harry James received a solid offer of $150 per week to join Ziggy Elman and Chris Griffin, forming one of the all-time great big-band trumpet sections in swing/jazz history. Soon, Harry James was lead trumpet in the Benny Goodman band – about as high-up on the music ladder as possible short of fronting one’s very own band.

“I Feel Like a Whore in Church”

The 1938 Benny Goodman band, was considered by Goodman himself, and just about everyone else, to be one of the all-time best bands ever assembled. The roster was packed with star musicians, and the driving force behind the band’s great output was the duo of drummer Gene Krupa and lead trumpet, Harry James. The date January 16, 1938 represents a significant milestone in not only classical music history, but in the evolution of swing/jazz as “America’s music.” For the first time in its storied history, staid Carnegie Hall would feature a musical program other than classical. Some classicists were aghast at the prospect. The Benny Goodman band would present a program of the latest swing/jazz music, then taking America by storm. Arranging the concert was difficult in the first place, and there was much anxiety over how the Hall’s black-tie/formal audience would receive the program.

Fifteen minutes before the program was scheduled to begin, Harry James nervously peeked around the stage curtain at the formally attired audience settling into their seats and uttered one of the great comments of the age: “I feel like a whore in church!” The Goodman Orchestra started off the program a bit tentatively. Drummer, Gene Krupa, sensing the situation and throwing caution to the wind began to let go on his drum set. The band’s tempo and the audience reaction responded immediately, and the rest of the program rocked the house. It was a smashing success, all told, establishing for swing/jazz a prominent and prestigious position in the national consciousness. Now the horses were truly out of the barn, and the era of swing had formally arrived in America.

Benny Goodman: Another Legendary Great

The Benny Goodman story and his rise to fame is similar to that of Harry James. Benny made his musical mark several years prior to James’ smash debut. Like Harry, Benny had a very long and very distinguished career in music – another truly legendary musician. In 1938, Goodman was dubbed the “King of Swing” by music critics and adoring fans, alike. Benny, like so many of the great swing bandleaders, was one tough customer, but in a more subtle way than most. One thing for certain: Benny was not known for according accolades to other musicians, but when asked many years later about the early days when Harry James played lead trumpet for him, he stated fondly, but succinctly, “Harry could do it all on the trumpet.” That is about as good as it gets coming from Benny Goodman who could do it all on the clarinet, and his comment could not be more complimentary. He and Harry were very different personalities but alike in some key areas. Like Goodman, a master technician on his instrument and a lover of playing classical music (not on the bandstand), Harry also had a classical vein which ran through his musical tastes. Goodman acquired his classical leanings and his impeccable playing technique from his early boyhood German music teacher, Franz Schoepp, and James from his grounding on the fine points of classical training and playing which came from his father – the only music teacher Harry James ever had. Professor Schoepp reputedly had a tremendous aversion to “that jazz music” that young Benny had begun to discover.

The Irresistible Force of Great Talent and Future Fame

Everette James must have been a man of contradictions, perhaps unwillingly. While recognizing his young son’s unlimited musical potential – and encouraging it – he did not wish for Harry the life of a traveling musician, like his own. That, of course, is precisely the life Harry James lived, only at altitudes well above the mud and inconveniences of circus life. Surprisingly, Everette had visions of his son as a concert musician or even a lawyer or doctor, yet he presumably never encouraged Harry to continue his education beyond junior high! I believe that Everette James could not or would not ignore his son’s great musical talent and potential. After Harry won the Texas State music competition as a junior high-schooler and began playing professionally around the Beaumont area, he came to his father and insisted that it was time for the elderly man and Maybelle to let him take care of them through his earnings as a musician. Undoubtedly, his plan resonated with Everette after he and his wife had traveled for so many years with several circus shows cobbling together a somewhat meager existence. Everette James had also worked for years at non-music jobs in-between circus shows in order to keep food on the table. The inevitable was now happening for Harry James, and it was happening rapidly.

Harry James Discovers Frank Sinatra; Yes, That Is True!

1939 found Harry planning to break away from Benny Goodman and start his own band. Despite the fabulous experience gained playing for Goodman and the numerous musical contacts now available to him, James found the initial months on his own very daunting. When he left Benny, he and Louise had a total of $400 in the bank. Goodman stepped in to help finance Harry, but he did him no favor relative to terms of the financial agreement! Late one evening in June of 1939, while preparing for a train trip to Boston, Harry’s wife Louise was packing a suitcase while Harry napped. The radio was tuned to station WNEW’s Dance Parade, a remote broadcast scheduled from 11:30 pm until midnight. The live music was coming from a little North Jersey roadside steakhouse called the Rustic Cabin.

The Cabin’s small band was playing dance music, and there was an occasional male vocal. Something about the voice and the musical phrasing in those vocals caught Louise’s attention, and she decided to wake Harry for his opinion. “Honey, you might want to hear this kid on the radio!” Harry’s new band was looking for a male vocalist, so Louise took a chance and woke her husband from his nap.

Harry agreed that the vocals had merit, so the next night after his show at New York’s Paramount Theatre, he drove down to this inauspicious little roadside place in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey to check it out. The Rustic Cabin’s manager explained that they had no singer, just an emcee/waiter who occasionally sang with the little band. James sat back and listened. Afterward, Harry James was introduced to a skinny, young kid named Francis Albert Sinatra, currently employed at the Rustic Cabin, earning fully $15 per week and looking for a way out – a pathway to better things. James later related that, after hearing eight bars of Night and Day from the youngster that evening, he felt the hairs begin to stand up on the back of his neck; Harry was convinced that young Sinatra had a great future. A one-year contract for $75 per week ensued and turned Francis Albert Sinatra’s life around: it was not the money; it was the golden pathway to stardom laid at his feet by another legend-in-the-making, Harry James. Sinatra never, ever, forgot what Harry James did for him that night at the Rustic Cabin. After a sparkling year with the Harry James band, Sinatra was seduced away by Tommy Dorsey and his established and very popular band. It was the combined experiences in the James/Dorsey bands that refined Sinatra’s innate talents sufficiently to ultimately make him a superstar. After less than two years with Dorsey, Sinatra left to become his own main attraction in the great music venues of the day. He became arguably the finest male vocalist of all time. The Rustic Cabin is long gone, but the story that unfolded there one night in June, 1939, brims with magic.

The Harry James Trumpet Method: Everette and Harry Collaborate

As Harry’s fame began to skyrocket in 1941, the Robbins Music Company published a book on trumpet instruction and practice exercises that was a collaborative and substantial effort between father and son. That book provides insight into the disciplined approach to playing handed down from father to son. More accurately, perhaps, I should say “from grandfather to grandson” since the book reveals that Everette’s own father preceded him as a cornet player and circus bandleader! Harry James, indeed, had quite the lineage as a player. I just received my own copy of this very collectible trumpet publication. It has been out of print for many decades, now, so I am happy to have a nice copy.

Harry James and His New Band Hit the Big-Time!

By 1942, the Harry James band had arrived. He had rcorded an all-time hit on Columbia Records,You Made Me Love You, and his band was featured with the Andrews Sisters in the 1942 move release, Private Buckaroo. The recording remains an icon of the big-band era as do many others by James. The movie’s only virtue is as a showpiece for the performer’s talents – the only way for rural fans in America to witness these stars. Any sensible plot or movie screenplay is non-existent, here. There is some fine trumpet playing in the film, but the opening scene visible behind the rolling credits is what justified my outlay of several dollars for a DVD. The film’s opening credits roll down the screen in the forefront of images of an intimate nightclub dance floor with Harry James fronting his band and playing his evocative rendition of You Made Me Love You. After the band’s intro, vocalist Helen Forrest strides onstage to do her part, and she does it well. She does not have a vocal on the actual recording of that number, so it is wonderful to see her perform, with Harry and the band, perhaps his greatest hit of them all in this film.

Forging Legends in a Tumultuous Business (Music)

Helen Forrest was, in my opinion and that of many others, the finest of all the many female big-band singers. She recorded many hits with James (and others) – a dynamic instrumental/vocal duo with strong personal overtones. There was a long-term relationship between the two that was far more difficult for Ms. Forrest to deal with than it was for James. It has been written that she was crushed when she learned of Harry’s marriage to Betty Grable in 1943. Ms. Forrest wrote very candidly about her life with Harry and the music business, in general, in her up-front book, I Had the Craziest Dream. The book’s title derived from yet another smash hit she recorded with Harry and the band. When Ms. Forrest walks out on stage in the movie Private Buckaroo to sing You Made Me Love You, the visible body language between the two belies something more than just a music contract between them. Decades later, the two would, on rare occasions, perform together and reminisce for old-times sake. Watching the late-life reunions of iconic performers like these survivors of such an uncertain and impermanent game as the music business, one cannot help but think, “What a lot of water under the bridge, and they are still here and still cooking!”

America’s Music Scene: Constantly “Evolving”

By the late nineteen-forties, the big-band craze which swept the country for slightly over a decade was fast fading. There were three reasons why. First: the economics of traveling bands became untenable. It became increasingly difficult to engage fifteen top musicians for paltry wages like $100 per week given the numerous other opportunities suddenly available to them. Second: in a burgeoning recording market, the best musicians turned to careers as “studio musicians” who worked in and around recording studios. Demand was high and life on the road minimal compared to the traveling band days of extended engagements (if the bands were good enough to get bookings). Third: radio was bigger than ever, and television was just around the corner, so the public had growing entertainment options. The big ballrooms packed with young romantic couples and featuring fifteen-piece bands were headed for oblivion.

There was yet another major factor at play in the music industry: the growing popularity of pop music vocalists, backed by a small ensemble of studio musicians. Guess who started that trend in the early nineteen-forties after leaving Tommy Dorsey’s band to go it alone! None other than Francis Albert Sinatra. In the nineteen-fifties there were names like Eddie Fisher, Patti Page, Rosemary Clooney, Dinah Shore: the list is too long to even attempt. Records were now the profitable game, and publicity venues like fan magazines, radio, and television were suddenly available to popularize individual vocalists and their latest recordings. Even popular hit recordings by vocalists were often woven around the most rudimentary of musical ditties and lyrics – tunes like: How Much Is That Doggie in the Window?. Looking back on the nineteen-fifties (my teen years) and the chart-toppers of those years makes me almost want to cringe when considering the great popular music that was written and performed in the prior two decades. By the late fifties and the decade that followed, rock-and-roll took the country by storm. In the sixties, the pop vocalist music industry was reeling and the trumpet, the iconic lead instrument of the big-band era, had been replaced by the electric guitar.

Harry James responded to these waves of change by spending much of his time in Las Vegas performing with his new band or, often, four or five other musicians playing top lounge dates in the high-priced hotels on the strip. His music was now louder, brassier, and jazzier than in the past, yet his technique on the trumpet still maintained the exacting standards he upheld as a young player. Harry and Betty Grable had divorced in 1963: she died of cancer in 1973. During the marriage, they lived in style, and, together, became heavily involved in horse racing, spending much time at Southern California tracks and much money on a stable of horses. In the end, money was a problem for Harry James, both handling it wisely and having enough of it. After the loss of his ex-wife, Betty, James pushed on, supporting himself primarily via his lounge shows in Vegas and other occasional commitments.

The many years, vodka, and life in the fast lane finally began to take their toll on Harry James in the late nineteen-seventies. He maintained his trumpet playing artistry for many years while fully immersed in the turbulent music business – quite a testimonial for any musician. But Harry was not just any musician. He fell into debt at the end despite his huge lifetime earnings in music and show business. He had been living life in a great big way for a long time, and now the piper had to be paid.

His last professional engagement was to provide trumpet background on an album featuring a young, relatively unknown female singer. Photos taken at the time reveal a man ravaged by a long, productive life in the fast lane, and the onset of the lymphatic cancer which killed him. His playing can be described as rudimentary, at best, with unsteady moments and only an occasional hint of the artistry that was his trademark for decades. I was very saddened when I first saw and heard the reality. Fortunately, he lingered not very long in that musical limbo unlike some who stay around too long performing after they have “lost it.” I always felt that Sinatra should have retired before he began to forget lyrics and sing off-key. Given his own great longevity as America’s finest male vocalist, I suppose he can be forgiven for staying with it too long at the end.

The Final Curtain and a Special Eulogy for Harry James

Harry James died on in Las Vegas on July 5, 1983, precisely forty years to the day of his marriage to Betty Grable in the very same town. The funeral was attended by two hundred people, and the eulogy was delivered by Frank Sinatra who was first in line to request the honor. Present were many long-time friends including Phil Harris who was very close to Harry and who also spoke at the service. Sinatra’s voice wavered at times during the eulogy as he began by saying, “I loved Harry James. I loved him for a long time. He was one of the finest musicians I have ever known. He was a dear friend and a great teacher.” He spoke of the night at the Rustic Cabin back in 1939 when Harry James magically appeared in the audience and ignited Sinatra’s meteoric career. He recalled that James asked him on the spot when he could leave his current employ, to which Sinatra replied, “Right now.” Sinatra also recalled the occasions on the road that year with Harry’s newly formed band when meeting payroll for the group was problematic at times for James. His year traveling with Harry and the band left warm memories which Sinatra never forgot. When he approached Harry to inform him of his significant offer to join Tommy Dorsey, Harry shook his hand and wished him well – no hard feelings and no contractual strings attached. Unlike other bandleaders, Harry was inherently that kind of person. Sinatra closed his eulogy with, “Thanks for everything. So long, ole buddy. Take care of yourself.”

Harry James wrote his own epitaph: “May it simply be said and written of me, ‘He’s gone on the road to do one-nighters with Gabriel.’”

Final Thoughts on Harry James and His Influence

Since this story has ended with Frank Sinatra’s eulogy to Harry James, I wish to add one more memorable anecdote relating to their relationship.

After accepting Tommy Dorsey’s offer to join his well-established and successful musical organization, Sinatra was ready to take a big step in his career. He had learned a lot from Harry in the year performing with his new band, and now he was about to learn still more from Tommy.

Sinatra’s last performance with the Harry James band occurred on a very dark, snowy evening in Buffalo, New York on January 26, 1940. After the performance the band boarded the bus which would take them on to their next engagement. Sinatra recalled: “The bus pulled out with the rest of the guys after midnight. I’d said goodbye to them all, and it was snowing. I remember there was nobody around, and I stood alone with my suitcase in the snow and watched the taillights of the bus disappear. Then the tears started, and I tried to run after the bus. There was such spirit and enthusiasm in that band [that] I hated leaving it.”

Sinatra’s account is so personal, touching, and evocative that images form in my mind’s eye every time I read it.

Harry James was one of a kind. At once immature and insecure, yet supremely confident in his musical ability – and justly so; formally uneducated in every venue but music, yet very street-smart; an admitted loner, yet widely traveled and well connected and respected in the music business; a womanizer, yet remembered fondly by someone like Helen Forrest who knew him well. He once told his first wife, Louise, “I live in my own world. No one gets in.” So many contradictions and complications in one individual, but in the final analysis:

“Ain’t None of Them Play Like Him Yet”

and that will likely remain his great legacy.

Here are direct links to a few previous posts of mine re: music and musicians; click on them to see the post:

From the Slums of New Orleans to the Palaces of Europe: Meet Louis Armstrong – Musician

From Bing to Bix: Beiderbecke, That Is!

Frank Sinatra After 100 Years: The Gold Standard

 

An Evening with Trumpeter Chris Botti

Last Thursday, Linda and I spent an evening with Chris Botti in concert. The venue for this performance was the magnificent outdoor theatre at nearby Villa Montalvo. We were blessed with a magnificent, warm evening and a convincing show of trumpet/musical artistry from this fine performer.

Mr. Botti is no longer new to the musical scene, but he represents something rare today: a popular trumpet player who stands apart, one who reaffirms the beauty, the grace, and the versatility of this magnificent instrument.

From the era of the nineteen-twenties through the nineteen-seventies, the musical scene was peppered with trumpet/cornet icons, memorable players who popularized the instruments to a fantastic degree. I am talking about names such as Louis Armstrong, Bix Beiderbeck, Harry James, Randy Brooks, Bobby Hackett, Ray Anthony, and Al Hirt. Of course, the wild popularity of the big-bands beginning in the nineteen-thirties provided unparalleled opportunity for the great lead trumpeters and drummers (like Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich) to show their stuff and shine as they “drove” the band, together.

With the great shift away from big-bands and their economic woes that began in the late nineteen-forties, vocalists and small groups came to the fore. The trumpet lost its “home” as the lead instrument in the great bands, and began a slide from public view, excepting the many great modern jazz players like Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis. But modern jazz has never been the popular “cup of tea” that the big-bands represented, and the trumpet virtually disappeared from the public’s view in the nineteen-seventies as rock-and-roll and its electric guitars presided.

So, Chris Botti represents somewhat of a “Lazarus act” for the trumpet, and I am glad to see it. He has a unique style which balances a strong jazz inclination, with a distinctly lyrical sensibility to his playing. Technically, he is a “force” on the trumpet, very much in command of the instrument and all its possibilities. And when Mr. Botti cuts loose on some of the wilder numbers, he blows the roof off, so to speak. He commands the stage and the respect of the other performers in a good way, driving and encouraging them to give their all – and they do!

We enjoyed the evening as did the audience; I left the venue assured that Chris Botti is, indeed, a force on the trumpet and pleased that the instrument has such an able and popular spokesman, once again.

Somewhere, Harry James is smiling.

Get America Moving Again: Reform Campaign Finance!

Yesterday, I watched day two of the Democratic debates in Detroit, Michigan. My overwhelming conclusion? Despite two debates with twenty candidates sparring over the best ways to solve the many problems this country faces, all but one candidate literally could not or would not see the forest for the trees.

The candidates stand during the national anthem on the first night of the second 2020 Democratic U.S. presidential debate in Detroit, Michigan, July 30, 2019. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

The candidate running for president of the United States who enunciated clearly the single most important problem we face was ironically the most unlikely to win the Democratic nomination. That candidate was author Maryanne Williamson, on day one of the debates.

In the middle of a discussion over gun safety in this country, she was asked by CNN moderator Don Lemon: Ms. Williamson, how do you respond to this issue of gun safety? She responded:

The issue of gun safety, of course, is that the NRA has us in a chokehold, but so do the pharmaceutical companies, so do the health insurance companies, so do the fossil fuel companies, and so do the defense contractors, and none of this will change until we either pass a constitutional amendment or pass legislation that establishes public funding for federal campaigns.

But for politicians, including my fellow candidates, who themselves have taken tens of thousands — and in some cases, hundreds of thousands — of dollars from these same corporate donors to think that they now have the moral authority to say we’re going to take them on, I don’t think the Democratic Party should be surprised that so many Americans believe yada, yada, yada.

(SIGNIFICANT APPLAUSE)

It is time for us to start over with people who have not taken donations from any of those corporations and can say with real moral authority: That is over. We are going to establish public funding for federal campaigns. That’s what we need to stand up to.

We need to have a constitutional amendment. We need to have — we need to have legislation to do it.

I have heard candidate Bernie Sanders espouse similar viewpoints in the past, but Ms. Williamson’s remarks during these debates stood alone…and tall.

Many promises and good intentions were bandied about among the candidates in Detroit. Here are just a few:

-Reform our health-care system.

-Crack-down on powerful pharmaceutical companies which charge Americans outrageous prices for critical medicines.

-Reduce fossil fuels within ten years to protect our planet from climate change.

-Rein-in the military/industrial complex in this country which has played a role in some of our unnecessary and unwise involvements, abroad.

-Abolish assault weapons and enforce effective gun registration.

The list is long, but I ask the candidates: Do you truly believe any necessary, constructive change can take place when congressional members are largely bought and paid for by the lobbyists who (very successfully) influence legislation on behalf of their powerful clients? Come on, candidates, get serious! Follow the money. Legislate that all campaign finance for government office be taxpayer-funded and strictly regulated.

The pay-for-play system prevalent in our government, today, places us precariously on the slippery-slope leading to a completely corrupt government. Never, has that been more evident.

Apollo 11: One Giant Leap for Mankind!

Fifty Years ago, yesterday, a Saturn 5 rocket lifted off its launch pad at Cape Kennedy, Florida, on one of the most audacious adventures in the history of mankind. On board were three “spacemen” adventurers who carried the hopes and aspirations of people the world over on their shoulders.

The goal: to land a man on the moon’s surface and bring him safely back to mother earth. The odds of success? In 1961, when President Kennedy pronounced his determination for the nation to accomplish this before the end of the decade, many of the engineers with experience on the program which had not yet even sent Mercury astronaut John Glenn into local earth orbit thought Kennedy’s goal… “nuts.”

By the sheer force of national will fueled by an open checkbook for NASA from Washington, Kennedy’s daring commitment was realized. With over five months to spare before the decade’s end, astronauts Neal Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin landed on the lunar surface on July 20, 1969. The confirmation came as Armstrong beamed back to earth, the message, “…the Eagle has landed.”

July 16, 1969 dawned bright and mostly clear over the Florida Cape. On that momentous day, the mighty Saturn 5 rocket with its crew of Armstrong, Aldrin, and Michael Collins, ponderously lifted from earth on a thundering plume of fire and smoke. The spectacle and the sound of it mesmerized the thousands who came to watch the launch for themselves. Even at the more distant viewing points from the launch pad, the rolling, rumbling thunder emanating from the engines of the Saturn 5 was sufficient to rattle windows and elicit speculations regarding the power and fury of whatever powers might ultimately bring about the end of the earth, itself.

Speaking less from a poetic standpoint and strictly from that of the rocket engineers who designed her, the mighty Saturn 5 at lift-off was developing 7.5 million pounds of upward thrust by expelling 15 tons per second of combustion materials from its five engine nozzles! These are incredible numbers.

 

      

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

     Wernher Von Braun and the business end of the Saturn 5 rocket

This was Isaac Newton’s third law of motion on full and mighty display:
    For every action, there results an equal and opposite reaction.

In full accordance with Newton’s third law, the forces within the combustion chambers, required to violently expel fifteen tons per second of combustion products from the rocket’s nozzles in a downward direction gave rise to equal and opposite reaction forces on the upper, closed walls of the combustion chambers. It is this reaction force which provides the requisite upward thrust to the Saturn 5. One can appreciate the rolling, earth-shaking thunder which was experienced far and wide during a Saturn 5 launch when the violence taking place within its combustion chambers is fully appreciated.

It is poetic justice that the fundamental principle behind rocket propulsion should stem from the fertile mind of Isaac Newton as first revealed in his Principia of 1687, the greatest scientific book ever published!

We celebrate, today, not only the complete success of Apollo 11 as a mission, but the spirit and can-do attitudes of NASA, President Kennedy, Congress, and the American people who were all-in with their support and enthusiasm for the Apollo 11 program. Those several days when space was truly opened for exploration will stand in the record of this nation as among the best of times for America, notwithstanding the array of “other” concerns which faced us then.

The cold war with the Soviets was one of those concerns, and anyone who has paid attention to America’s many triumphs in space will appreciate that a major impetus for Kennedy to issue his man-on-the-moon challenge in 1961 was the realization that space exploration meant rocket technology and rocket technology was key to our nuclear missile defenses and our national security. Despite the need for such gnawing pragmatism in the space program, the altruistic legacy of man’s exploration of outer space remains first and foremost in the consciousness of the American people.

Like Pearl Harbor, VE-day in World War II, President Kennedy’s assassination in 1963, and 9/11 in 2001, Apollo 11 was one of those generational events which remain a life-long memory for those who lived through them. I remember clearly where I was and what I was doing fifty years ago. Linda and I were living in Santa Barbara, California, and I was half-way through my Masters Degree in electrical engineering at the University of California, Santa Barbara. We were renting half of a wonderful hillside duplex which overlooked that beautiful city with a line of sight toward the city harbor and west to the Pacific Ocean. As we intently watched all aspects of the Apollo launch on our little 19-inch black-and-white television during those several days, I recall countless time-outs to our front terrace-porch with coffee cup in-hand where I could enjoy the city view spread out below me while reflectively musing about the wonder of all that was happening on man’s remarkable journey to the moon and back. The few years we lived there encompassed some of the happiest times and circumstances of our young married lives; the triumphal success of Apollo 11 in July of 1969 played no small part in those special times for us and continues to provide joy in recollecting.

I have just finished watching the newly released DVD movie, Apollo 11, with my two young grandsons. The movie rates five-stars plus and does full justice to the drama and excitement of the event. As the movie ended, I counseled Matthew, my older grandson, that the times, the attitudes, and the circumstances which combined to make made Apollo 11 possible will represent a marker in humanity’s timeline, a marker which will always be remembered as “One giant leap for mankind.”

As a retired electrical engineer, I take time to reflect upon the countless scientific and technical people who made the moon landing possible:

-The physicists like Galileo, Newton, and Einstein who first unmasked the nature of gravity and the laws of motion.
-The electrical engineers/physicists who tamed electricity: men like Michael Faraday and James Clerk Maxwell.
-The metallurgists who, over many decades, came to understand the nature and strength of materials – titanium, for example, found in the rocket nozzles of Saturn.
-The “ordinary” electrical and mechanical engineers and computer programmers who designed the immense support platform of equipment needed to support a mission like Apollo 11.
-The countless, faceless, folks who are so large in number, but nevertheless provided critical skills and support in management and mission control.
-The technician who was called upon when a leaky valve on the rocket halted the countdown before launch. With, virtually, the eyes of the world upon him, he entered the rocket assembly some two-hundred feet above the pad to tighten some bolts in order to mitigate the situation. I can only imagine the pressures on this fellow who remains faceless and nameless. He has lived with quite a memory of that time and his role in it, I am certain.

And, finally, there were the dreamers, the ancient astronomers (natural philosophers) who looked to the heavens in wonderment centuries ago and asked, “How and why is this?”

 

 

Bye-Bye Birdie: My Recent Intervention with “Chickadees”

June 15, 2019: Yesterday was replete with both a happy ending and a sad one. The story began two days earlier when my wife and I arrived home after our regular workout at the local gym. We were not home long when Linda informed me that we had “birds in the garage.” Sure enough, there were at least two small, apparently very young birds flitting around among the exposed rafters: wonderful!

I immediately knew this could be a significant problem and could only wonder how multiple birds got into our seemingly (but not quite) airtight garage. As best we could recall, neither the large garage door nor the small side door had been left open for any period of time, recently!

After the two of us watched the tiny aviary flying to-and-fro within the garage, Linda opened the back door to briefly go into the house. At that point, one of the birds in flight headed right for the open doorway to the house which caused Linda to panic and to quickly close the door while retreating back into the garage.

Taking a cue from that, I figured we merely had to open the main garage door and the little denizens of our very own accidental aviary would head for daylight and freedom. Up came the door and we were greeted immediately with the sight of another small bird trying to get into the garage! We waved our arms and the new invader turned back. At the same time, neither of the two “captive inmates” showed any inclination to fly out to freedom.

What is going on here, I wondered? I soon deduced that the third bird was likely the mother bird, well-aware that two of her newly flight-qualified charges were somehow inside our garage. Further attempts to open the main garage door while patrolling outside to discourage mama from entering proved fruitless. The two tiny flyers inside, so recently flight-qualified, seemed not to recognize that they belonged outside, in the daylight and fresh air and not inside our garage. Daylight was not synonymous with freedom, to them, apparently.

Now, I knew we really had a problem. Another wrinkle to the situation: Linda is a bit terrified by the prospect of any close, personal encounter with birds, living or dead. More than once in our fifty-two years together, I have been despatched to her beloved garden to remove a dead bird from the flower beds. A dead bird discovery in her garden evokes an immediate freak-out from Linda.

What to do with these newbie birdies? I spent much of last Wed. evening and a good part of Thursday in the garage with my large, bright LED flashlight scanning the darker regions of the overhead rafters and the racks of storage boxes in the garage. Before long, the frenzied flying about was done; now, I had to audibly track the frequent and persistent squawky-peeps emanating from various corners of the garage in order to catch them in the beam of my flashlight. Wednesday evening, realizing the dire situation, I ordered a bird net from Amazon: two day delivery!

Once I located one of the birds in the beam of my flashlight, I would try to “coax” it to re-locate to a spot where I might capture it without harm. I armed myself with a large, wet rag to toss over a cornered or surprised bird. That led to several quite humorous, but decidedly unsuccessful encounters: they were too wily and quick for me! Before long, I concluded that my best option was to stun them a bit on their perch or in mid-air using my damp rag balled-up as a projectile. That did not work. My last resort was to gently swat them in mid-flight with the bristles of a broom, enough to stun them to the ground where I could employ my wet rag capture. Tracking flying birds in our garage which is crowded with boxes and stuff of all sorts means risking life and limb – a nearly impossible and dangerous mission.

I had the feeling that leaving the garage doors open for extended periods might only invite the mother (and other of the flock) inside. Besides, these confused baby birds seemed unable to recognize the freedom represented by daylight. They acted as if the garage were “home.”

More than once, after fruitlessly stalking these birdies for well over half an hour at a time, I would declare out loud, “I am done with these birds!” My LED flashlight batteries needed replacing, and I was discouraged, but I found myself unable to resist for long, going back to the garage to try some more, consumed by a stubborn persistence!

Finally, on Thursday afternoon, I left the side garage door open and tried, yet again, to roust the uninvited residents of my garage and herd them with a broom toward daylight. I was 90% certain that one of them actually flew out the side door after considerable effort on my part. I thought I saw it out of the corner of my eye! Before he and/or others might decide to come back in, I closed the door, confident that I had but one uninvited guest remaining.

Now, it is Friday morning, and time is running out. The bird net I ordered from Amazon was not due until that evening, and I figured that a rescue was paramount before the end of the day. Without food and water, our uninvited guest surely could not last much longer, it seemed. That morning, I went out to the garage with my trusty flashlight, and my wet rag. Sure enough, there were still some weakly audible, squawky-peeps to be heard. When rousted, the little bird’s flight was slow and labored. At one point, the little flyer fluttered to the floor of the garage, exhausted, where I finally was able to cover him with my wet rag.

Scooping him up ever so carefully within the rag, I opened the side door to be greeted immediately by mama bird who quickly retreated when I stepped outside. She surely could hear her charge’s weak, squawky-peeps through the side door. Carefully, I laid the rag and its squirming little captive on the sidewalk and gently peeled back the flap covering him. The exhausted, cute little down-covered flyer was able to gain his feet, fluff himself up, and sit there motionless with eyes half-closed. I retreated several yards back, and, sure enough, mama bird was quickly there. Linda and I placed some water and crushed

cracker crumbs next to birdie, doing what little we could.

I spent close to a half-hour watching with fascination how mama bird energetically worked the various plants and bushes nearby, apparently looking for food. Twice, she went up to birdie and ostensibly transferred some sustenance to him beak-to-beak. She then departed for a while, only to come back, yet again, to check on her charge.
I came back later and found that birdie had moved off the sidewalk and onto the adjacent dirt strip – a wise move for the purposes of camouflage, if nothing else. Another half-hour passed, and I returned to find birdie still in place. I carefully attempted to place his water next to him and was startled when suddenly he took flight smoothly and straight to a bush some fifteen yards away – a very good and welcome sign! I have not seen him since, but, after what I have witnessed, I have no doubt that mama bird found him fairly quickly. Perhaps she has a few more lessons to impart before finally letting go!

The Final Chapter

Our Friday morning trip to the gym was long-delayed by the events described above, but we left happy in the knowledge that the little bird we rescued now had a chance at life. I heard no squawky-peeps in the garage prior to finally heading out for our workout. After the gym, we had not been home but a few minutes when Linda came to tell me she found a dead bird. My heart sank as I followed her to find out where she discovered the bird. Surprisingly, the bird was lying on the floor inside the garage, close to the side garage door. I immediately surmised that the second bird which I had thought flew out the open side door the day before, must not have done so. A wad of dust-balls from underneath some nearby cabinets was clinging to its feet. Sad was I, yet happy that the rescued birdie was still alive out there, somewhere, hopefully with a life ahead of him/her.

I learned a lot about these little birds during my three-day, up-close and personal interaction with them. Despite having small, “bird-brains,” they are hard-wired by mother nature with a strong instinct to survive. The mother/young bond on display throughout the three days was emblematic of that instinct. The endurance of the baby birds was evident by all the flying in a warm garage and the constant stream of squawky-peeps emitted from them, cries for help that the mother bird duly heeded.

I call these little birds “chickadees” for want of any more expertise. They are recent arrivals (within the last several years) in our neighborhood. Many are the times I have watched through the patio window as they deftly made their way among the plants outside, looking for dinner. My admiration for them has only grown deeper, given this recent experience.

Postscript: How Did They Get into the Garage?

Soon after discovering these little “garage invaders,” I employed my ladder to investigate. I was aware of a small masonry ledge just under the front eaves at the corner of the garage door where there was bird activity in years past. As I climbed to eye level with the ledge, an adult chickadee flew around the corner of the garage and landed on the ledge, not two feet from my nose. That startled me, and my unexpected presence there apparently startled the bird as well which left as quickly as it appeared. “That must be the mother bird,” I thought, and she seems familiar with the territory. A few moments later, I noticed the mother three feet away, peering at me around the corner of the garage while hanging tenaciously on to the side brick masonry which extends around the corner. One look from me, and she was gone, again.
My investigation revealed a construction area/strip about one inch high where the chicken wire underlay (for stucco) was exposed. But it was backed by a rafter – except for a two-inch length at the end. There, nothing showed behind the wire except a black hole! Despite the small diameter openings in the chicken-wire (approximately one inch), those birds somehow found their way through that area and into the garage. A rag is now stuffed into the narrow ledge opening outside. I expect no further Chickadee invasions!

A Young Boy’s Toys: The Rex Mays Toy Racer and the Story Behind It

In one’s late years, as time and life continue to move inexorably forward, a curious thing happens – at least to me. Certain objects and images we recall from our youth surface from a long-dormant state to beguile our memory and to re-kindle a new-born enthusiasm: a recollection of our youth and the things that mattered most to us in childhood.

Two of my favorite play-things early in life were my American Flyer electric train and a much less spectacular, nonetheless coveted, plastic wind-up Indy-style race car. Through the many decades since childhood, and for some obscure reasons, the recollection of that little motorized race car as one of my favorite toys stubbornly remained with me. I believe the jaunty little toy racer came to me around the time that my family moved from Chicago to California in early 1948. Special toys for my sister and I were few and far between in the lean postwar years, and this toy car was highly prized. I recall that my racer was made of light-blue plastic with an ivory-colored “underbelly,” and it had substantial, real rubber tires mounted on aluminum wheels. The car just looked “neat,” and it ran well: the wind-up motor could get it up to a pretty good speed on any extended smooth surface. My little race car disappeared many decades ago, and I never thought it likely that I would ever see one like it again.

Serendipity at the Pleasanton Antique Fair

Two years ago, at the annual Pleasanton, California, open-air antique fair, I found a suspiciously similar wind-up plastic race car with the exact same tires/wheels as my prized toy of over seventy years ago. Although the shape of its grey plastic body was somewhat different from the memories of mine, the wheels and tires registered exactly with my mental images. This car also differed in that it had a red plastic driver seated behind the steering wheel: mine did not. Despite not being exactly like mine, this “find” piqued my curiosity. The car came with its original, very nice box (rarely the case), and it was in good working condition, as well. I just knew this car had to be descended from my boyhood racer. For nostalgia’s sake, I made the dealer an offer: sixty dollars, and it was mine.

An imprint molded on the plastic bottom of the car reads:

MFG. BY PAGLIUSO MFG. CO.
GLENDALE 4. CALIF. USA

On the bottom of the box for the “Pagco Jet Racing Car,” the legend reads:

Manufactured by the makers of the original famous Rex Mays toy racer.
PAGLIUSO ENGINEERING COMPANY
113 West Harvard Street – Glendale 4, California, USA

 

 

Immediately, I deduced the possibility that my prized boyhood race car might have been “the original famous Rex Mays toy racer!” referred to on the box. And, by the way, who was Rex Mays, anyway?

My wife, Linda, and I were both intrigued by the fact that the Pagliuso Engineering Company was long ago located in Glendale, California – the city of her birth.

After acquiring an apparent “descendent” of my boyhood treasure at the Pleasanton Fair, I commenced to do what I do, and I began to Google the internet for information. I quickly verified that the “Rex Mays toy racer” was made under the name “Rite Spot Plastic Prod.” by the same company at the same Glendale address as my recent purchase, the “Pagco Jet Racing Car.” I deduced that my recent purchase was likely manufactured ten to twenty years after the Mays toy racer was produced which could place the latter date somewhere in the late nineteen-forties.

The Final Proof!

A distributor’s advertisement cut from a vintage, contemporary magazine surfaced for sale on E-Bay for several dollars. The ad offered the Rex Mays Racer with “free-wheeling motor” and “rubber tires”…all for $2.50 postpaid! The small ad included a picture of the racer offered. One look, and I could see: that was my little car – exactly, in all respects! I purchased the original ad.

What does the experience described in this post mean to me? Adding substance to the remaining mental imagery of my long-gone racer via the miracle of Google and the internet is yet another instance of the good and the joy that technology can bring to our lives. To the rest of the world, my experience with this toy race car will appear trivial, yet it illustrates convincingly the power of the internet. For me, on a very personal level, the experience has enabled a mental (and physical) reunion with the times, the toys, and the enthusiasms of a young lad some seventy years ago. And, at my age, that proves to be symbolic and satisfying – the closing of a circular journey back to my distant past, a time-tunnel to my boyhood.

Two days ago, I placed an internet order for a Rex Mays toy racer, exactly like my old blue over ivory car except that this one is a rare sea-green color over ivory (pictured earlier). Instead of $2.50 postpaid, this one cost $75, shipping extra! The little car arrived yesterday in great condition. I was not disappointed.

My new car has the following legend embossed on the bottom:

MFD BY
RITE SPOT PLASTIC PROD
113 W. HARVARD
GLENDALE 4 CALIF.
MADE IN U.S.A.

“Rite Spot Plastic Prod” on this car was clearly affiliated with “Pagliuso Engineering” as marked on my earlier Pleasanton Fair purchase: the Glendale addresses are identical.

It so happens that surviving examples of this little car are available “out there” (who could have found them fifteen years ago?). Most of these toy race cars were “heavily enjoyed” by their youthful owners, so the significant challenge is to locate one in nice condition and good working order. Who knows, the remnants of my original, treasured little race car might still be out there, somewhere, on that vast sea of possibilities called “the internet.”

And Finally, Who Was Rex Mays?

Rex Mays was a very popular champion race car driver in the nineteen-thirties and forties with many important race victories. Although placing second twice at the Indianapolis Speedway 500, he never won there. In 1949, during a race at Del Mar, California, Mays lost control of his car and was killed. Press coverage of the event and the accident was widespread: a stop-action series of published photos in Life Magazine showed the grisly details of Mays’ ejection out of the car and onto the track where he was then run-over by another car coming along. Rex Mays, it seems, adamantly refused to wear a seat belt on the racetrack! It is not clear whether the introduction of the Rex Mays toy racer occurred before or after his fatal accident: most likely before, I imagine.

The Rest of the Story

In the course of my internet travels while unraveling the story of the Rex Mays toy racer, I came across this very applicable obituary on the founder of the Pagliuso Engineering Company in Glendale, California. Robert J. Pagliuso was evidently a very successful engineer/entrepreneur. In addition to his very popular motorized toy race cars (both gas-powered and wind-up), I learned that his photography tripods were considered the Rolls-Royce of the genre. It seems fitting that his story be a part of mine in this post!

Published in the Los Angeles Times on Oct. 23, 2003:

Pagliuso, Robert J.
On April 14. 1913, Robert J. Pagliuso (Bud) was born to immigrant parents in Glendale, California. He was raised on 11,000 acres known as The Ross Ranch. Bud and his brother John attended Glendale High School where both were student body presidents. Bud attended USC and from there he studied several fields of advanced engineering. As a young entrepreneur, he founded the Pagliuso Engineering Company. Through the duration of WWII, he contracted with the U.S. Government and operated his facilities 24 hours a day. Additionally, he designed, patented and manufactured his Hollywood Tripod and motor driven toy racecars which were distributed throughout the world. Bud and John developed and owned The Glendale Plaza Shopping Center which remains in the family. Bud went on to develop other commercial real estate holdings in LA County and cattle and horse ranches in Kern County. He bred, raised and raced thoroughbred running horses.

One Last Comment

The stories I have related in this post epitomize, for me, the differences that exist between growing-up as a young boy in today’s world and coming of age in the environment of the nineteen-forties and fifties. I wrote this post because it strikes me as quaint that a little, unsophisticated plastic wind-up race car could have captured a young boy’s fancy as was the case with me. This post expresses my interest in the contrasts between then and now.

In today’s world, high-tech, lithium battery-powered robotic toys which flash, move, and talk while creating a virtual new reality are the play-things that capture young boys’ attention – not that there is anything wrong with that. There is no stopping technological progress: that is a given. With my electrical engineering background, I can appreciate what is available in today’s toy/hobby venues, but the bar is very high for modern toys.

The wind-up Rex Mays toy racer and simple toys like it, back in the day, captured – and held – the imagination and appreciation of us kids for a very long time. The culture of those times and the role of play-time “imagination” had much to do with the attraction and staying power of simpler toys. Will the same hold true for today’s toys, or is it already time to move on to the next, big thing? Could it be that less is more?

The Collings Foundation’s 2019 “Wings of Freedom Tour”

In a few weeks, the familiar and unmistakable drone of World War II heavy bombers will be heard once again in the skies over-head. I am already getting excited! It is time for the annual reappearance of the Wings of Freedom Tour at nearby Moffett Field. Moffett will be one of many stops across America for the tour and its priceless collection of beautifully restored, vintage aircraft.

The stated mission of this annual tour is two-fold: first, to restore and preserve vintage aircraft in flying condition; second, to pay tribute to those who flew in the war while insuring that future generations will be reminded of those veteran’s experiences and sacrifices. The war years of 1941-1945 were, on balance, undoubtedly the worst of times; yet in many smaller ways, they were also the best of times for this country. The book, The Greatest Generation, by Tom Brokaw reflects the uniqueness of the times and the generation who lived them.

While I have no personal affiliation with the Collings Foundation, whatsoever, I wholeheartedly support their mission to insure that the contrasts and the color of those times are never lost to future generations. I write this endorsement of their tour strictly as an act of appreciation and thanks.

I especially look forward to re-visiting the Wings tour this year because I had the great, good fortune last Memorial Day to fly the Foundation’s most iconic warbird, the P-51D Mustang. For one glorious half-hour, I had the ability to take the rear seat controls of that beautiful bird under the watchful eye of pilot Nick, seated up-front. I posted, here, on that experience last year: it and other related posts can be located by entering “Mustang” in the search box on the top right of my home page.

My flight in Toulouse Nuts was the thrill of a lifetime for someone like me interested in aviation – especially the warbirds from World War II. The Collings tour offers anyone the chance to go up in one of several iconic airplanes that played a pivotal role in the war. A half-hour ride in the P-51D will cost you $2400, but a half-hour adventure aboard the B-17 Flying Fortress or the B-24 Liberator bomber runs $450. A nominal fee of $15 for adults and $5 for children, enables you to crawl at your leisure through the bombers mentioned for an up-close-and-personal ground adventure!

If you have not visited the Collings Wings of Freedom Tour, Google it on the internet to see if it will be coming your way this summer. Take your children and treat them to an eye-opening reality-experience that will make a lasting impression. The following photo says it all for me:

A veteran who flew on B-24’s provides a living link to hundreds of kids who are learning that a knowledge of history has far more to offer them than spending still more social media time on the internet. If you visit the tour this year, chances are that you will still encounter a veteran volunteer docent who was there decades ago and can relate, first-hand, what it was like to fly these great warbirds which won the war for freedom. Sadly, as each year passes, fewer of these folks are still with us who can pass on their memories and their realities to the next generation.

The B-24 Liberator, Witchcraft – the last one flying

The airplane in the background of the above picture is the very last of its kind still flying: The storied B-24, Witchcraft. The B-24 Liberator had the highest production run of any airplane in history – approximately 18,500 were built! Such a large number supports two facts: first, the importance of this, our largest, long-range bomber; second, the huge losses suffered during countless bombing runs over Germany. Given these facts, I deeply appreciate that the Collings Foundation does what it does to “keep ‘em flying,” as they say, while preserving this precious heritage for future generations to experience.

Go hear for yourself the sound of the B-24’s four piston engines coughing, smoking, and belching to life during engine startup. See for yourself that big bird lift off the runway, straining for altitude. Go crawl through the belly of the beast and see what its crews faced at thirty-thousand feet with freezing cold during six-hour missions into Germany and back (if lady-luck was with them that day)!

While you are at it, check out the signature, raspy/throaty roar of the twelve-cylinder, 1600+ horsepower Rolls-Royce Merlin engine as it catapults the P-51D Toulouse Nuts into the air on take-off. The P-51D was the greatest fighter of the war, bar-none! Its introduction to service as a long-range bomber escort in late 1943 saved countless bomber crews who would otherwise have gone down at the hands of German pilots. Aside from its unmatched ability to escort the bombers deep into Germany and back again, the P-51 proved superior to any fighter/interceptor in the German arsenal. Many nine and ten-man bomber crews developed a great fondness and admiration for their P-51 escorts – their “little friends,” as they called them.

Go catch the tour and see for yourself: you won’t be sorry that you did!